When my house burned down at age 13, I assumed that all material evidence of my childhood was lost forever. It was not until a few months ago that my younger brother pulled a box of old photographs (which had miraculously been preserved) out of storage.
For many queer and trans people, photographs from the past – especially from childhood – can dredge up painful memories of years spent being misrecognized or having to hide parts of oneself. When these photos of me were brought out, I braced myself for the uneasiness of confronting a history that no longer felt like it had anything to do with me.
Instead, I found something rather different. These photographs showed me a childhood that I could identify with: a version of myself still untouched by puberty and holding an openness towards explorations of self, particularly in regards to gender.
In many images, I appeared in total comfort wearing my mother’s pink sequin dance uniforms and harem pants – even while still retaining a rather questionable choice in ill-fitting long-sleeves.
In one image, I am at a medieval-themed birthday party. While my friends are all wearing armour and carrying shields, I am in a black dress covered in rhinestones … I’m sure I was passing it off as an elven cloak or something.
Any major life event can cause one to feel like their life has been split in half; that there is a before and after. This was definitely true of my coming to terms with and coming out as trans.
I felt like there was an old me that needed to be cast away and a new me that I was eagerly trying to become. The archive of these photographs reminds me that binaries like this are usually a bit
I don’t want to over-determine the significance of my childhood gender non-conformity. If someone witnessing the scene had assumed my discomfort with gender and tried to talk to me about it, I don’t necessarily think that would have brought clarity.
However, getting the chance to look back and playfully queer-code my own childhood feels like I can reclaim a time that is still complicated to remember. I am also grateful that my childhood gender exploration could exist and even be documented without fear of punishment.
Photographs from childhood can sometimes contain answers to questions we only develop much later. I do not remember having any particular awareness of gender in the moment these photographs were taken. While I have clearly changed a great deal since, digging through the archives of childhood for me is a complicated reminder of a time when I did not relate to my body primarily through shame – something I am trying to relearn now.
As much as there has been change, there are also lines of continuity from which I can learn. In these photographs, I find a version of myself not consumed with anxiety or dysphoria, but living and finding joy in the body. I want to find this feeling in my present self.
Jase Falk is a non-binary femme, student and writer who lives on Treaty 1 territory.
Published in Volume 73, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 15, 2018)